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Spanish Presidency of the Council of the EU 2023: Many achievements but concerns about unresolved issues

31 January 2024

Professors Joan Guàrdia Olmos, Pedro Mercado Pacheco and Ricardo Rivero, Rectors of the Universities of Barcelona, Granada and Salamanca, respectively

The Spanish Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) concluded a month ago, prompting the need to assess its achievements and shortcomings in the university sector. While there were commendable successes, some aspects raised concerns within the European academic community.

The Spanish Presidency prioritized open strategic autonomy, emphasizing collaboration and a shared vision among member states. This approach has fostered a conducive environment for international cooperation in research and academic partnerships, promoting the exchange of knowledge and expertise among European universities and strengthening the role of science as a relevant tool for EU diplomacy. We are particularly thankful to the role the Spanish Presidency played in organising the second Forum of European University Alliances, held in September 2023 in Barcelona.

Another measurable achievement has been the emphasis placed on the Ecological Transition. Spain initiated EU-wide initiatives aimed at aligning university research and education with sustainable practices, and these initiatives have been well-received in the higher education institutions landscape. This focus on environmental sustainability reflects a forward-looking approach to addressing global challenges through academia, and we welcome this achievement.

The Spanish Presidency has also played a crucial role in highlighting social priorities, emphasizing a commitment to addressing societal needs through academia. This inclusive approach is reflected in initiatives supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion within the university sector, enhancing its societal impact.

As with any presidency of the European Council, these positive aspects have been accompanied by some shortcomings. Maybe the most notable concern is the proposal to cut funds from Horizon Europe. The suggested reduction of up to €5.3 billion raises apprehensions about the potential impact on research and innovation in the university sector. We all acknowledge that adequate funding is crucial for maintaining the competitiveness and excellence of European universities on the global stage. Budgetary restrictions in the Horizon Europe programme are not the way forward.

As the Spanish Presidency comes to an end and the Belgian one begins, there are still pending issues within the university sector. While some achievements have been made, addressing unresolved matters is now vital for sustaining the overall positive momentum generated during the Spanish Presidency. We need the EU member states at all levels of government to ensure the continued growth and excellence of European universities and European University Alliances.

Together with the other members of the Coimbra Group we remain deeply committed to support all efforts towards these goals.